August 30, 2005

Religion A Strength And Weakness For Both Parties

Public Divided on Origins of Life

Summary of Findings

Both major political parties have a problem with their approach toward religion, in the eyes of many Americans. More than four-in-ten say that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party, while an almost identical percentage says that religious conservatives have too much influence over the Republican Party.

The public also has distinctly different perceptions of both parties when it comes to dealing with religion and personal freedoms. By a wide margin ­ 51% to 28% ­ the Republican Party is seen as most concerned with protecting religious values. By a nearly identical margin (52%-30%), the Democratic Party is perceived as most concerned with protecting the freedom of citizens to make personal choices.

Yet the Democrats’ strength in this area is overshadowed by a sharp erosion in the number of Americans who believe the party is friendly toward religion. Only about three-in-ten (29%) see the Democrats as friendly toward religion, down from 40% last August. Meanwhile, a solid majority (55%) continues to view the Republicans as friendly toward religion.

However, independents are more critical of the influence of religious conservatives on the Republican Party than they are of the influence of secular liberals on the Democratic Party. Most independents (54%) think religious conservatives have too much influence over the Republican Party, while fewer, 43%, think secular liberals have too much sway on the Democratic Party.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted July 7-17 among 2,000 adults, also finds deep religious and political differences over questions relating to evolution and the origins of life. Overall, about half the public (48%) says that humans and other living things have evolved over time, while 42% say that living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Fully 70% of white evangelical Protestants say that life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time; fewer than half as many white mainline Protestants (32%) and white Catholics (31%) agree.

Despite these fundamental differences, most Americans (64%) say they are open to the idea of teaching creationism along with evolution in the public schools, and a substantial minority (38%) favors replacing evolution with creationism in public school curricula. While much of this support comes from religious conservatives, these ideas ­ particularly the idea of teaching both perspectives ­ have a broader appeal. Even many who are politically liberal and who believe in evolution favor expanding the scope of public school education to include teaching creationism. But an analysis of the poll also reveals that there are considerable inconsistencies between people’s beliefs and what they want taught in the schools, suggesting some confusion about the meaning of terms such as “creationism” and “evolution.”

Despite the growing national debate over the teaching of evolution, there is little evidence that school discussions of evolution are upsetting to students. Just 6% of parents with children in school say their child has mentioned feeling uncomfortable when the subject of evolution comes up at school. Comparably small numbers of parents say their children have expressed unease when the subjects of religion or homosexuality have come up at their child’s school.

The survey shows that large majorities of Americans believe that parents, scientists and school boards all should have a say in how evolution is taught in schools. But a plurality (41%) believes that parents ­ rather than scientists (28%) or school boards (21%) ­ should have the primary responsibility in this area.

The public remains generally comfortable with politicians mentioning their religious faith; in fact, more continue to say there is too little expression of religious faith by political leaders (39%), not too much (26%). However, a growing minority feels President Bush mentions his faith and prayer too much. The percentage expressing this view has doubled ­ from 14% to 28% ­ over the past two years.

Contrasting Party Images

Public impressions of the Democratic Party’s attitude toward religion have changed notably in the past year. Just 29% see the party as being generally friendly toward religion, down from 40% a year ago, and 42% in 2003. Meanwhile, the percentage saying the Democratic Party is generally unfriendly toward religion has ticked up to 20% from 13% last summer. By comparison, a 55% majority continues to see the Republican Party as friendly toward religion, with little change over the past two years.

This change in the image of the Democratic Party has occurred across the political spectrum, but it is particularly noteworthy among independents. In August 2004, a 43% plurality of independents said the Democratic Party was generally friendly toward religion. Today, only about a quarter (24%) hold this view, a level similar to that seen among Republicans (21%). In general, people who are the most religious themselves are the most critical of the Democratic Party in this regard.

At the same time, by a 52% to 30% margin, the Democrats, not the Republicans, are seen as the party most concerned with protecting the freedom of individuals to make personal choices. Fewer Republicans believe this than do Democrats and independents, but young people and women more often credit the Democrats for protecting personal freedoms than do older people and men.

By more than two-to-one (56%-24%), women view the Democratic Party as being most concerned about protecting the freedom of people to make personal choices; men are more closely divided (47% pick the Democrats, 37% the Republicans). While nearly six-in-ten people under age 30 (58%) view the Democrats as most concerned with protecting the freedom of people to make personal choices, just 39% of those ages 65 and older agree.

Religious Conservatives, Secular Liberals Seen as Having Too Much Clout

Both the Democratic and Republican Parties receive considerable criticism for being too beholden to ideological constituencies within the parties. Just as many believe that non-religious liberals have too much control over the Democratic Party (44%) as believe religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party (45%).

Not surprisingly, Republicans are particularly critical of the Democratic Party in this respect, and Democrats are equally critical of Republicans. But there is substantial concern coming from within the parties as well. Roughly a third of Democrats (34%) say the Democratic Party is too influenced by liberals who are not religious, and 30% of Republicans believe their party is too controlled by religious conservatives.

Centrist members of both parties more often express these concerns about their own party than do their more ideological counterparts. For instance, 39% of moderate and conservative Democrats worry that the party is too influenced by secular liberals, compared with 25% of liberal Democrats. On the Republican side, 35% of moderate and liberal Republicans say the party is too influenced by religious conservatives, as opposed to 26% of conservative Republicans.

Independents are more likely to describe the Republican Party as controlled by religious conservatives (54%) than to describe the Democratic Party as controlled by secular liberals (43%). In fact, independents are nearly as critical of the Republican Party in this respect as are Democrats overall.

Liberals Go ‘Too Far’

Aside from their influence on the Democrat
ic Party, there is an even more widespread perception ­ held by two-in-three Americans ­ that liberals are going too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and the government.

Not surprisingly, white evangelical Protestants and conservative Republicans are the most uniformly critical of liberal efforts on these types of issues. Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) in both groups believe liberals have gone too far on church-state issues. But many Democrats share this view, particularly moderate and conservative Democrats. Overall, 56% of Democrats say liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government, and moderate-to-conservative Democrats are twice as likely as liberal Democrats to express this view (67% vs. 33%, respectively).

Beyond these political divides, there are also significant educational and regional differences in how liberals are perceived. By a 75%-18% margin, Americans who have not attended college see the left going too far in pushing for a strict separation of church and state. College graduates, by comparison, are far less critical (54% say “too far,” 42% not). Similarly, by a margin of four-to-one (77%-18%) Southerners believe liberals are going too far, and two-thirds of Midwesterners agree. Residents of the Northeast and West are less prone to take this view.

Interestingly, three-quarters of African Americans also see liberals pushing too far in keeping religion out of schools and government. It is important to note, however, that this negative perception of non-religious liberals is not linked to views of the Democratic Party among blacks. Blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites to say the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion and, by a 58%-24% margin, blacks say the Democratic Party, not the GOP, is most concerned with protecting religious values in the country.

Many Concerned with Conservative Values Agenda

Americans are divided over whether conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country ­ 45% say yes, and 45% say no. As with criticism of liberals’ handling of church/state issues, there are partisan and ideological divisions on this issue. A majority of Democrats (57%) believe that conservative Christians are going too far, but this is driven primarily by liberal Democrats, 83% of whom take this view. By comparison, moderate and conservative Democrats are divided; 46% see conservative Christians pushing their religious values on the nation, while 44% do not.

Roughly one-in-four Republicans (26%) believes conservative Christians have gone to far in trying to impose their religious values on the country. This includes nearly half of moderate and liberal Republicans (47%), and just 16% of conservative Republicans.

There also are sizable differences across religious and ethnic lines. Among whites, roughly half of mainline Protestants and Catholics say conservative Christians are trying to impose their religious values on the country too much, compared with just 21% of evangelicals. Not surprisingly, seculars are the most likely to see the Christian conservatives excessively imposing their values (61%).

As with views of whether or not secular liberals have gone too far on church/state issues, education is strongly related to views on whether or not conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country. Six-in-ten college graduates think Christian conservatives are going too far, compared with 48% of people with some college but no degree, and just 35% of people who did not attend college.

Divided Over Evolution

Most Americans believe that God was responsible for the creation of life on earth but divide on the question of whether and how life has changed since the creation. Overall, 78% say God created life on earth, while 5% think a universal spirit or higher power was responsible for the creation.

Despite this broad agreement regarding the origins of life, the public is deeply divided on precisely how life developed. A plurality of Americans (48%) say that humans and other living things have evolved over time, but nearly as many (42%) say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. The latter group is often called “creationist” because this view is seen as consistent with a literal reading of the Bible’s account of creation.(1)

There is further division among those who agree that life has evolved over time. Of those who say that living things have evolved over time, roughly half (26% of the public overall) accept the Darwinian account of evolution, saying that evolution has occurred through natural processes such as natural selection. But nearly four-in-ten of those who believe in evolution (18% of the public as a whole) say that evolution was guided by a supreme being for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today, a view that is consistent with some aspects of what has been called “intelligent design.”

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are most distinctive in their support for the creationist position. A large majority of white evangelicals (70%) say that living things have always existed in their present form. In contrast, most white mainline Protestants (60%) and white Catholics (61%) believe that living things have evolved over time, while only 32% and 31% of mainline Protestants and Catholics, respectively, accept the creationist account.

But both mainline Protestants and Catholics are divided over the nature of the evolutionary process. Three-in-ten mainline Protestants (31%) say evolution occurred through natural selection, while 24% think evolution was guided by a supreme being. Among white Catholics, 28% subscribe to natural selection and the same number believe evolution was guided by a higher power. In contrast, most seculars (56%) accept the idea of evolution through processes such as natural selection.

These differences of opinion carry over into politics as well (see detailed tables on pp. 22-23). Nearly six-in-ten conservative Republicans believe that living things have always existed in their present form, while just 11% say that evolution occurred through natural processes. Among liberal Democrats, by contrast, only 29% hold the creationist position, while a plurality (44%) accepts the natural selection theory of evolution.

Age, gender and education are also strongly related to views about the development of living things. College graduates are twice as likely as people who did not attend college to accept the natural selection theory of evolution (40%-18%). Nearly half of women (47%) say that living things have always existed in their present form, while only 36% of men share this view. Half of Americans ages 65 and up subscribe to the creationist position, compared with only 37% of Americans under age 30.

Many Think Scientists Disagree about Evolution

There is no public consensus about how scientists view evolution. Opinions about what scientists believe are strongly associated with one’s own beliefs on the subject. Most Americans (54%) think that there is general agreement among scientists that evolution has taken place, but a substantial minority (33%) says that no such scientific consensus exists. By an 82%-13% margin, those who accept natural selection theory see a scientific consensus on this issue. Among those who take a creationist position, a 46% plurality thinks the scientific community is divided over the evolution question.

While most people who accept evolution believe there is a scientific consensus on the topic, they themselves express less certainty about how life developed on earth than do people who believe the creationist account. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who take a creationist point of view say they are very certain about how life developed. By contrast, those who believe in evolution are less certain of their views ­ just 32% say they are very certain.

People who take the Bible literally are much more convinced of the accuracy of their views of the development of life on earth (69% very certain), compared with those who don’t take the Bible literally.

Reflecting this, a plurality of the public overall (42%) says that their religious beliefs have had the most important influence on their opinions about the development of life. This number rises to 60% among people who accept the creationist account. By contrast, a plurality of those who accept evolution says that their education is the most important source (47%); this number is 60% among people who believe that evolution proceeds through natural selection.

Evolution in the Schools

Even though nearly half of Americans believe that humans evolved over time, this poll and many others have shown that substantial majorities of the public favor adding creationism to the public school curriculum. In the current survey, 64% support teaching creationism along with evolution in the public schools, while only 26% oppose this idea. But significantly fewer people say creationism should supplant evolution in the curriculum: 38% say creationism should be taught instead of evolution (49% disagree).

Support for teaching creationism along with evolution is quite broad-based, with majority support even among seculars, liberal Democrats and those who accept natural selection theory. At the same time, not all creationists believe that creationism should replace evolution in the schools: 32% of those who subscribe to the creationist view do not think it should be taught instead of evolution. These findings strongly suggest that much of the public believes it is desirable to offer more viewpoints where controversial subjects in the schools are concerned.

White evangelicals and black Protestants are the only religious groups expressing majority support for teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools. Majorities of mainline Protestants, Catholics and seculars oppose this idea. Politically, a majority of conservative Republicans favor replacing evolution with creationism in the classroom, but support for this proposal falls below 40% for all other political groups, including moderate and liberal Republicans. Regionally, only among Southerners does a plurality (45%) support replacing evolution with creationism in the schools.

But there are also inconsistencies in peoples’ responses that point to confusion regarding the meaning of terms such as “creationism” and even “evolution.” For example, among people who oppose teaching creationism either along with or instead of evolution, 27% personally take the creationist position on human origins. Similarly, 19% of people who think creationism should be taught instead of evolution nevertheless personally believe in evolution through natural selection.

Who Should Decide What Is Taught?

Large majorities of Americans believe that parents, scientists and science teachers and school boards should all have a say in how evolution is taught in public schools, and these majorities are found among all religious groups and people on both sides of the question of how life developed on earth. But there are deep divisions in the public about who should have the primary say on how evolution is handled. Overall, a plurality of the public (41%) says parents should have the primary say, compared with 28% for scientists and science teachers and 21% for school boards.

A majority (54%) of those who accept creationist accounts support giving parents the primary say on how evolution is taught. Among those who accept the theory of natural selection, however, nearly half (47%) support giving scientists and science teachers the primary role in how evolution is handled in public schools. Evangelical Protestants are most in favor of parents having the primary say on this issue (59%), while seculars are most supportive of trusting scientists and science teachers with these decisions, with 41% expressing this view.

Lukewarm Ratings for the Schools in Dealing with Sensitive Topics

Americans give public schools mediocre ratings for their handling of controversial subjects. Among parents of school-age children, only 38% say that schools are doing an excellent or a good job handling sex education; 31% rate schools as excellent or good on evolution; 24% give schools excellent or good ratings for their handling of religion; and 17% give schools favorable marks for their handling of homosexuality. White evangelicals give public schools lower marks for their handling of religion than do white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. In addition, both African Americans and Hispanics are highly critical of school performance in this regard.

Parents who believe that human life has always existed in its present form are more likely to give schools a “poor” rating (32%) for their handling of evolution than are those who believe that life evolved over time (9%). Those who reject the idea of evolution are also more likely than others to give the schools low marks for their handling of religion.

Midwesterners have a more favorable impression of schools’ handling of sex education than do Southerners or Westerners, while Democrats rate schools more negatively for their handling of homosexuality than do Republicans. On both sex education and homosexuality, non-whites are considerably more likely to give schools a poor rating than are whites.

Despite the controversial nature of these subjects, very few parents say that their children have been made uncomfortable when these topics come up at school. Just 8% of parents who have children in school have had a child mention feeling uncomfortable when homosexuality was discussed, 6% say this about discussions of evolution, and just 5% say their children have been uncomfortable at school because of the topic of religion. These results are consistently low across religious and political groups and geographic regions. Even among conservatives, just 12% say school treatment of homosexuality has made their child uncomfortable, though this is significantly higher than among liberal parents (only 1% of whom say this).

Religion and Politics: Continuing Ambivalence

As in the past, the public is divided over whether religious organizations should speak out politically. Roughly half (51%) think churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, while 44% believe these organizations should stay out of political matters.

Support for churches expressing political views is particularly high among white evangelicals and black Protestants (67% each) and conservatives (61%), while opposition is greatest among white Catholics (58%), liberals (56%) and those ages 65 and older (55%).

Among evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics, support for church involvement is associated with high levels of religious commitment. While only 41% of highly committed white Catholics believe churches should keep out of political matters, 67% of less committed Catholics feel this way.

There are also intra-party divisions among Republicans and Democrats; 66% of conservative Republicans believe churches should express their views on political issues, compared with only 45% of moderate and liberal Republicans. Conversely, 52% of conservative and moderate Democrats think churches should voice opinions on such subjects, compared with just 35% of liberal Democrats. The public’s overall outlook has not budged since August 2004, when the gap between those who favor a political role for religious organizations and those who oppose such a role was also 51%-44%. Indeed, looking at surveys reaching back to the 1950s, there has been remarkably little change on this question over time.

The public is decidedly opposed to the idea of clergy discussing political candidates or issues from the pulpit. Only 31% believe this is ever appropriate, while 63% say clergy should never use their position in this manner. Opposition to this particular intersection of religion and politics is widespread; even 56% of evangelicals say clergy should refrain from political expression while in the pulpit. Again, opinion on this issue has been largely stable over time, although Gallup found even less support for discussing candidates and issues from the pulpit 40 years ago, when only 22% said it was appropriate.

Politicians and Personal Faith

Although still a minority, a growing number of Americans are uncomfortable with President Bush’s public expressions of faith. The percentage saying the president mentions his faith and prayer too much has risen from 14% in the summer of 2003, to 24% in mid-2004 to 28% currently. Criticism of Bush on this issue is most common among liberals (52%), seculars (47%) and Democrats (45%), although it has increased significantly since 2003 among mainline Protestants (+24%), moderates (+20%) and women (+19%). Slightly more than half (52%) say Bush mentions his religious beliefs an appropriate amount ­ a 10-point drop from July 2003 ­ while just one-in-ten believe he discusses faith and prayer too little.

Regarding political leaders generally, the public is divided over the appropriate amount of religious expression. A plurality (39%) believes there is too little discussion of faith and prayer by political leaders, while 26% think there is too much and 27% say politicians voice their religious sentiments the right amount. The share of Americans who want more expressions of faith from politicians has increased by eight points since August 2004. Opinion on this issue has changed significantly since the months just after Sept. 11, 2001, when a majority felt political leaders were discussing faith appropriately.

Issues: Most Favor Promoting Democracy

Most Americans (60%) favor the idea that the U.S. should work to promote democracy around the world. However, previous Pew surveys have shown that when viewed along with other foreign policy goals, the promotion of democracy ranks as a relatively low public priority (see “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven By 9/11 and Iraq,” Aug. 18, 2004).

More Republicans support promoting democracy around the globe than do Democrats or independents. White evangelicals also strongly support the promotion of democracy. There is even greater agreement that the U.S. and other Western powers have an obligation to use military force to prevent genocide. By more than three-to-one (69%-21%), the public believes the U.S. and other Western powers have a moral obligation to prevent one group of people from committing genocide against another group.

While majorities or pluralities in most major demographic and political groups agree the U.S. and other major Western nations should intervene militarily to prevent genocide, African Americans are evenly divided on this issue; 45% of blacks say the U.S. and other Western nations have a moral obligation to act, while 48% disagree. Whites overwhelmingly believe the U.S. and other nations are morally obligated to use force to prevent genocide (by 73%-17%).

Support for Israel Declines Slightly

The public, on balance, continues to side with Israel in the Middle East conflict, although support for Israel has declined slightly. About four-in-ten (37%) say they sympathize more with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, while 12% sympathize more with the Palestinians. A year ago, slightly more (40%) said they sympathized with Israel.

In addition, there has been an uptick in the number who say the United States should take Israel’s side less in the Mideast situation. Currently, 22% express that view, compared with 19% in 2003 and 14% in 2002. About half (47%) say the U.S. should take Israel’s side as much as it has in the past.

There long have been major differences among members of major religious traditions in views of the Mideast conflict. White evangelicals continue to express strong support for Israel. More than half (54%) say they sympathize more with Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians, compared with 40% of mainline Protestants, 35% of white Catholics and a quarter of seculars.

Similarly, about three-in-ten white evangelicals (28%) say the U.S. should take Israel’s side more than it has in the past. Only 15% of mainline Protestants, 13% of seculars, and just 8% of white Catholics favor greater U.S. support for Israel.

Religion and Mideast Views

Religious beliefs are cited most often by supporters of Israel as having the biggest influence on their views of the Middle East conflict (34%). This is especially the case for white evangelicals who sympathize with Israel; 54% of these evangelicals say their religious beliefs are the most important factor shaping their views on the issue.

By contrast, just 9% of those who sympathize with the Palestinians cite religious beliefs as the biggest factor in their thinking about the Middle East. A plurality of those who sympathize with the Palestinians (36%) say what they have read or seen in the media has had the greatest impact on their thinking; roughly a quarter (26%) cite their education as the biggest factor.

Faith-Based Aid Backed

A solid majority of Americans (66%) favor allowing churches and other houses of worship to apply, along with other organizations, for government funding to provide social services, such as drug counseling. Support for such faith-based initiatives has declined somewhat since early in Bush’s first term. In March 2001, 75% said churches should be permitted to apply for such assistance.

Nonetheless, there is broad-based support for this policy. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (67%), independents (66%) and Republicans (65%) say churches and other houses of worship should be allowed to apply for such funding. Support for this idea is particularly widespread among African-Americans (80%) and white evangelicals (70%).

However, the public is broadly opposed to directly shifting some funds from federal anti-poverty programs to religious groups in order for them to provide social services. Fully 58% oppose this idea, compared with just a third who favor it. Majorities or pluralities in most demographic groups oppose taking funds from government anti-poverty programs and giving them to religious groups.

Churches Help Solve Social Problems

Overwhelmingly, Americans believe that religious organizations are playing a constructive role in addressing society’s challenges. Two-thirds (66%) say churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship contribute a great deal or some to solving important social problems.

Agreement on this issue is widespread, with at least half in every major demographic group, including seculars (52%), saying that houses of worship contribute a great deal or some. Still, the percentage expressing this view has declined slightly since March 2001, when 75% said these institutions were helping solve social problems.

More Favor Gays Serving Openly

Consistent with a recent rise in the number of Americans who favor legalized marriage and civil unions for gays and lesbians(2), public support for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military has increased modestly since the mid-1990s. Currently, 58% say gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly, up from 52% in July 1994. Equally important, intense opposition has decreased ­ from 26% in 1994 to 15% today.

Solid majorities of seculars (72%), white Catholics (72%) and mainline Protestants (63%) believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the nation’s military; most white evangelical Protestants (55%) disagree.

Other Issues

The public continues to support the government guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes. By more than two-to-one (64%-30%), Americans favor a government guarantee of health insurance for all. Democrats and independents overwhelmingly favor the government guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, while Republicans are deeply divided. Two-thirds of moderate and liberal Republicans (66%) support this idea, compared with just 41% of conservative Republicans.

There also is strong public sentiment in favor of increased government aid to the poor. Currently, 69% favor providing more generous government assistance to the poor; that is consistent with surveys dating to 2001 (73% in March 2001). There is considerable agreement among members of major religious traditions ­ and seculars ­ in favor of greater aid for the poor.

A majority of Americans (54%) support passage of a constitutional amendment permitting the federal and state governments to outlaw flag burning. In 1989, when congressional efforts to ban flag burning attracted considerable attention, significantly more people (65%) favored a constitutional amendment targeting flag burning. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) support a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning, compared with about half of independents (50%) and Democrats (46%).

The survey finds that Pope Benedict XVI is an unfamiliar figure to many Americans, but those who do have an opinion of the new pope are much more favorable (44%) than unfavorable (11%) in their opinion of him. By a 67%-5% margin, Catholics express favorable views of the pope, but nearly three-in-ten (28%) were not familiar enough with the pope to offer an opinion.

Cite this publication: “Religion A Strength And Weakness For Both Parties.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 30, 2005) http://www.people-press.org/2005/08/30/religion-a-strength-and-weakness-for-both-parties/, accessed on July 23, 2014.